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School choice had a big moment in the pandemic. But is it what parents want for the long run? – The Hechinger Report

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Abbey Clegg watched the Manchester school board meetings online in the summer of 2020, slowly coming to terms with what was happening.
New Hampshire schools were not going to reopen in the fall.
Clegg, her husband, Rich, and their six children were all at home together. She and her husband were trying to work and her older kids were trying to tap into online classes.
“It was a disaster for our family. They’re sending home these packets. They’re trying to do Zoom and we don’t have enough broadband,” Clegg recalled.
Clegg, who works with the New Hampshire program for foster and adoptive children, and her husband, a Baptist pastor, didn’t have strong feelings about what type of schools their kids attended. Their eldest was enrolled at a private Christian school, while their four younger school-aged kids were attending a local public school, two of them in special education.
But six kids at home for months on end was not going to work.
Nearly a decade earlier, New Hampshire had created a private school voucher program wherein state taxpayers and businesses get a credit that lowers their state taxes in exchange for donating money to the program. Clegg applied for the 2020-21 school year, enrolling two of her younger kids at a Catholic school that was open for in-person classes.
When New Hampshire lawmakers created a new voucher program in the spring of 2021, joining a list of states tapping into frustration with pandemic schooling to advance school choice measures, Clegg applied again. The additional financial support proved essential: It meant the kids could stay in their private schools.
Over the past two years, more than 20 states have started or expanded voucher-type programs, steering taxpayer money to help families afford private schools, pay for books and other materials for homeschooling, and cover the cost of services such as speech or physical therapy for kids who aren’t attending public schools. Some states tweaked long-standing programs. Others created entirely new, expansive programs with few or no limits on who can access public dollars — including students already enrolled in private schools — and minimal oversight on how the money is spent. Many states, red and blue, also acted to boost charter schools in some way, such as by adding millions in state dollars for charter school buildings and per student funding.
More than 20 states have started or expanded school voucher or similar programs over the past two years.
Often, politicians and advocacy groups backing the new programs cited parental concerns about remote schooling, along with the teaching of systemic racism and other topics ensnared in the culture wars, as reasons for pushing through school choice measures.
“The educational choice movement has done everything possible to build the best surfboard for parents. This was the right wave,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the advocacy group EdChoice, referring to the pandemic. “The timing was perfect – unfortunately perfect.”
But it’s far from clear how much support the new programs will get from parents.
Despite parental anger that has continued to simmer and evolve since the start of the pandemic, polling about parents’ interest in private school vouchers provides a mixed picture. Support for vouchers for all students, and even for vouchers limited to kids from low-income families, actually declined over the last few years, to about 45 percent, according to a 2021 poll by the journal Education Next, though polling conducted this year for some choice lobbying groups found strong support for private school subsidies.
Related: Opinion: After two decades of studying voucher programs, I’m now firmly opposed to them
The drive to create voucher-type programs is part of a broader strategy by some choice advocates: Libertarian think tanks and D.C.-based advocacy groups, which offer model legislation for state lawmakers, are among those lobbying for these measures and some aggressively attack legislators who don’t sign on. School choice advocates are trying to motivate parents to vote, especially given parents’ role in helping to elect a conservative Republican who campaigned against school closures in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race. In some states, pandemic restrictions at statehouses may have offered legislators the opportunity to pass measures without the large-scale in-person protests led by teachers and others in the past.
Last year, a manufactured conflict over instruction about so-called critical race theory fueled parents’ anger, adding to frustration about pandemic schooling. One of the underlying goals of those trying to rile parents is the privatization of public education.
“Too many parents today have no escape mechanism from substandard schools controlled by leftist ideologues,” conservative activist Christopher Rufo wrote earlier this year. “Universal school choice — meaning that public education funding goes directly to parents rather than schools — would fix that.”
“The educational choice movement has done everything possible to build the best surfboard for parents. This was the right wave.”
Most of the nation’s kids — about 50 million of them — have stuck with conventional public schools, although school choice advocates say that’s in part because laws need to change to allow more parents to choose those options for their kids. They note that many of the vouchers offered around the country do not cover the full cost of tuition at a private school and regulations about who can open charters and how much money they get can be restrictive too. Currently, about 5 million school aged kids are enrolled in private schools, though that number includes kids from families who don’t use a subsidy for tuition. Another 3.5 million attend charter schools, a number that has ticked up during the pandemic, and the rate of homeschooling has increased too, though it still includes only a few million children.
It’s the potential that tantalizes choice advocates — and scares public school proponents.
“Let’s pretend, we have 55,000 students for the district I’m in,” said Kelly Berg, a calculus teacher who is president of the Mesa Education Association in Arizona. “Now 5,000 students take vouchers and go elsewhere, not in our district. That’s over 100 teachers we have to cut. That could potentially mean a school closure somewhere.”
Those students might return to the public school system within a few months if things don’t work out, but the money wouldn’t follow them back until the following school year, Berg said, and teachers already would have been shifted around or laid off.
“That’s the real rub for me,” she said.
Related: Supreme Court ruling brings a changed legal landscape for school choice
Some of the new programs were created specifically for parents objecting to pandemic restrictions. At the start of the 2021 school year, for example, Florida’s state board of education expanded a small voucher program for students who had been bullied to include students who didn’t want to wear a mask to school or face regular Covid testing — its own form of harassment, the board argued. Only about 100 students in districts that required masks took the state up on the offer.
The New Hampshire program the Clegg family is using gives children from families with incomes of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty limit — or roughly $80,000 for a family of four — as much as $5,200 for private school tuition, homeschooling or educational services, or transportation to an out-of-district public school, among other uses. There’s no requirement that a child attend public schools before applying for a grant. That kind of provision infuriates choice critics, because it means parents can choose private schools without knowing whether a public school might be a good fit for their children. Supporters, however, say that these clauses honor a parent’s choice, whatever that may be, without requiring them to jump through hoops.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed the New Hampshire legislation as part of the state budget in June 2021. By the end of the following school year, about 2,000 students had signed up. He also expanded a separate tuition program for families in rural areas with limited public options, allowing them to use taxpayer dollars to attend religious as well as secular private schools. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states with such programs cannot exclude religious schools, opening the door to more public funding for private, religious education.  
West Virginia and Arizona went the furthest on school choice, creating options that would provide so-called education or empowerment scholarships to most or all of their respective state’s public school students. Both efforts face hurdles: A court challenge has blocked the West Virginia program, at least for now, and a campaign is underway to force the Arizona measure to face voters, which could put the program on hold until at least until 2024.
To be sure, for as many school choice programs that emerged since the pandemic, “lots still failed,” said Sharon Krengel, policy and outreach director at the Education Law Center, which has joined with other public school advocacy groups to form Public Funds Public Schools. The organization works on litigation that challenges vouchers and related programs.
In Louisiana, the Democratic governor recently vetoed a bill that would have created education savings accounts allowing parents to use tax dollars for private school tuition, homeschooling and other expenses. In Georgia, Republican lawmakers earlier this year pulled back a bill that would have provided state dollars for parents who wanted to send their children to private school. In Oklahoma, a bill to create a voucher program failed in the Senate in March, despite a pressure campaign from a D.C.-based lobbying group. Opposition to the bill came from Democrats as well as Republicans from rural areas that don’t have private schools.
Related: I got to choose private schools, but will vouchers really help other kids make it?
Politicians’ motivations don’t always align with what drives families to choose private school vouchers.
Pam Lang, an Arizona parent whose son James has autism and struggles to work independently, turned to the state’s empowerment scholarship program, or ESA, when she couldn’t find a public school that could meet his needs. The ESA program was limited to students with disabilities, children of military families and students attending low-performing high schools, but legislation, currently on hold, would open it to all students.
But, even with the scholarship, Lang had trouble finding private schools that could effectively serve her son. Still, with the ESA, “at least I could hire tutors,” Lang said, and the tutors worked with James independently at home. Now that her son is 15, Lang is taking a chance on a new private school for the coming school year.
Despite her own frustration with the teaching and services James received in public schools, Lang at times has criticized the ESA program and argued that money should instead be spent helping public schools better serve kids like her son. “I believe in public schools as an institution even though they were terrible for my son,” she said, her voice breaking. “You have to believe in democratic institutions. It would be wrong not to support them.”
But she said, “I can’t say there shouldn’t be any ESAs, until there is really not a need. I do feel they should only be for kids with special needs like mine.”
Some studies on vouchers don’t make a strong case that they improve kids’ educational achievement, finding that students using the subsidies actually lose ground in reading and math. Others, sometimes paid for by foundations that support vouchers, conclude the students who attend school using a voucher are more likely than peers to graduate from high school or attend college.
“Now 5,000 students take vouchers and go elsewhere, not in our district. That’s over 100 teachers we have to cut. That could potentially mean a school closure somewhere.”
Whatever the research or voters’ will, even the smallest voucher program has a tangible effect on state spending. In Ohio, five state voucher programs that enrolled nearly 80,000 students last school year commanded $552 million, a spokeswoman for the state department of education said, or about 5 percent of total state spending on education. In West Virginia, critics of the new education savings programs — including the state superintendent and president of the state board of education — argued that it was unconstitutional and would decimate public school finances, and a court agreed.
Choice advocates argue public money for education should follow individual students. They say research shows choice programs, such as Florida’s tax credit scholarships, actually save taxpayers money, though advocates of public schools don’t agree.
“We want all families to get all the dollars to go to any potential options. That’s our North Star,” said Enlow, of EdChoice. He noted that in Indianapolis, for example, public school students in third grade would be allocated about $15,000 for their education. About $11,000 would follow third graders to their charter school. But students using a voucher to attend a private school would have only about $4,500 to spend. “It’s not an equal playing field,” he said.
Related: What would actually happen if we gave all parents the chance to pick their children’s schools?
More choice programs, and battles, are still to come.
Some of the options created by lawmakers in 2021, like voucher programs in Missouri and two cities in Tennessee, are just getting off the ground. Others face new pushback. In Ohio, a coalition of groups including about 100 school districts, are suing over the state’s expansive voucher options, a past version of which survived a U.S. Supreme Court challenge.
In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who watched as a school choice bill stalled in the legislature earlier this year, helped five candidates who support choice win their primaries in the hopes of a better showing next year. And in Texas, where opposition by rural lawmakers and Democrats has helped kill voucher legislation in the past, some experts predict things could be different in the near future, with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, facing a tough primary, recently embracing private school vouchers.
Back in New Hampshire, Abbey Clegg is waiting to see whether her youngest, Emilia Jo, will fit in at the Catholic school some of her siblings attend when she starts kindergarten soon, or whether another school will make more sense. “It might not be a good fit for her. She’s a fiery little kid,” Clegg said.
But “being able to keep the kids where they are was such a blessing,” she said, especially after the trauma her family experienced last year, when her son Kaden died from complications related to some long-term conditions. The teachers are loving and warm, Clegg said. Several came to Kaden’s funeral and “loved on our kids so much during that time period.”
“We are huge advocates of finding kids that fit our school,” Clegg said. “We want them to go to a school that helps them academically — and to be a good human, really.”
“Whatever school fits your needs is where your kid deserves to be.”
This story about school voucher programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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Nirvi Shah is a Spencer fellow in education reporting at Columbia University.
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